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Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States

Author(s):Larson, John Lauritz
Reviewer(s):Majewski, John

Published by EH.NET (July 2001)

John Lauritz Larson, Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the

Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States. Chapel Hill:

University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xv + 324 pp. $19.95 (paper): ISBN:

0-8078-4911-1; $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2595-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Majewski, Department of History, University of

California-Santa Barbara.

John Larson, professor of history at Purdue University and co-editor of the

Journal of the Early Republic, asks an important question in this

engaging and lucid narrative: why did the national government leave internal

improvements — roads, canals, bridges, and railroads — to states,

localities, and private companies? The question is an important one. The

voluminous literature on internal improvements, including classics such as

George Rogers Taylor’s Transportation Revolution, has too often glossed

over the small role of the federal government without fully analyzing the

political, economic, and ideological roadblocks to national planning. In

filling this historiographical gap, Larson provocatively argues that the

United States would have been much better off if it had established a strong

tradition of national planning of internal improvements. National planning in

the antebellum era, he suggests, might have established traditions and

precedents to temper the capitalistic excesses of the Gilded Age. While

ultimately unconvinced of Larson’s claims on behalf of national planning, I

nevertheless found Internal Improvement a pleasurable and enlightening

read.

Larson’s starting point is the republican origins of the American Revolution.

The republicanism of the American Revolution, he argues, was quite consistent

with what might be called an American planning tradition that stressed the

ability of responsible statesmen to rationally discern the public good and use

the power of government to promote it. Larson traces how this form of

republicanism influenced a wide range of politicians in the early republic

period, include George Washington, Albert Gallatin, John Quincy Adams, and

Henry Clay. This diverse group of statesmen all shared the same abiding faith

that the federal government should shape the new nation’s transportation

network. On the other side of the debate stood a starkly different vision of

American republicanism, one fearful and hostile to any federal encroachment on

local and private power. Mostly identified with southerners such as Andrew

Jackson, this type of republicanism served as a convenient language for

opponents of national improvements, who, according to Larson, were motivated

by “a zealous hatred of modernization . . . selfish protection of local

advantages, investment in rival projects, sincere concern for the balance of

power between state and federal governments, or simply expedient partisan

gain” (p. 5).

The heart of Internal Improvement is a detailed narrative of the

national political debates between these two differing visions of

republicanism. The outcome was often in doubt. The proponents of planning

might well have won if only Madison and Monroe — both of whom supported some

from of national involvement — had not vetoed key bills because of the lack

of explicit constitutional authorization. The election of Andrew Jackson

spelled the beginning of the end of this long debate. Accordingto Larson, the

Jacksonian hostility to government planning — rooted in republican fears of

centralization — unintentionally fostered a devotion to free enterprise that

would characterize American economic policy well into the Gilded Age. “By

withdrawing the government from policy making,” Larson concludes, “Jacksonians

empowered markets, perhaps by default, both in politics and enterprise, as

arbiters of conflict in American society” (p. 192).

Interspersed within this political narrative are two chapters that highlight

the many problems of state-level policy. With the exception of the Erie Canal

– more the product of fortuitous geography than wise planning — Larson

argues that these state initiatives suffered “from problems of scale, clashing

local interests, and the lack of an overall national design” (p. 73). These

failures had important ideological consequences. For many Americans, the

failure of state-wide action highlighted the failure of all government

action, calling into question the efficacy of national planning. When state

planning finally collapsed (at least in the North and West) in the aftermath

of the Panic of 1837, Americans had one more reason to embrace capitalism as

the driving force behind their emerging railroad network.

The result of Larson’s national political narrative and overview of

state-level initiatives is an important and much-needed synthetic study. It

successfully integrates a wide range of new evidence with scores of older

works on internal improvements. Filled with detail, it nevertheless

steadfastly keeps the bigger picture clearly in view. The writing is elegant,

even polemical at times — a welcome break from the dry monographic tone that

characterizes much of the internal improvement literature.

The polemical side of Internal Improvement, however, sometimes gets

Larson into trouble, especially when analyzing the opponents of national

planning. Larson frequently blames the opposition of southern slaveholders.

Fearing the loss of control over a large federal government and the moral

consequences of modernization, southern planters consistently opposed federal

planning. Larson minces no words when evaluating southern fears of

centralization — at one point, he writes that many of these men “envisioned

no society more complex than the tidewater plantations on which they were

called ‘master'” (p. 115). Larson’s own tables, however, show a much more

complicated story. An overwhelming majority of New Englanders joined the South

Atlantic states in opposing federal improvements. In four separate votes in

1818 and one important vote 1824, 71 to 82 percent of New England’s

representatives opposed national internal improvements, a degree of opposition

equal to or great than the South Atlantic’s (pp. 118, 146.) New England’s

voting patterns changed during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, but even

then 30 to 50 percent of New England’s senators voted against federal

expenditures for several key canals (p. 168). Larson, alas, does not explain

the motivations behinds this important regional bloc against national

improvements.

Larson is also unduly hard on local interests that did so much to subvert

planning on both the national and state levels. Larson portrays local

interests in decidedly negative terms; greedy and jealous, they constantly

poisoned the spirit of compromise and accommodation needed to develop a

long-term national plan. Larson is certainly right in that antebellum

politicians strongly opposed plans that did not favor their own localities,

but he slights the economic dynamic that underscored such opposition. The

developmental impact of any one canal or railroad was quite narrow in

geographic scope, which meant that a bypassed town or area would see

population and trade migrate to rivals more successful in securing an

improvement. Since the location of a road or canal often meant the difference

between prosperity and stagnation, a single vote in Congress or the state

legislature could determine a town’s economic fate. In downplaying the local

impact of internal improvements — or dismissing it as localism or selfishness

– Larson misses an opportunity to add even more nuance to his analysis.

Given that the benefits of particular projects were quite local, one wonders

if national planning could really have worked as well as Larson makes out.

Larson is quite right to point out that leaving planning to states and

localities often led to duplication and endless political wrangling, but

precisely what foresight or knowledge did federal planners possess to avoid

these problems? Larson is surprisingly vague is spelling out the advantages of

federal planning. He keeps his argument on behalf of federal planning at a

fairly abstract level — it would have prevented the excesses of laissez-faire

capitalism and kept alive the ideal of republican self-government and a

commonwealth planning tradition (pp. 263-264). Yet one could just as easily

argue that the same local demands that overwhelmed states and localities would

have consumed the national government as well.

What little federal involvement that took place in the antebellum decades,

Larson admits, could not avoid intractable fights between rival projects. The

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, for example, built a canal along the Potomac to the

Ohio River that was the “crown jewel of national public works” (p. 178). The

company that built the project, in fact, was one of the few to receive direct

investment from the federal government. Yet the canal would soon compete with

the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, one of the most important enterprises in

American history. No wonder, as Larson explains in the next chapter, “the C&O

never flourished as an interregional artery and repaid almost nothing to the

company that built it” (p. 222). Larson’s impassioned arguments about the loss

of our “republican birthright” notwithstanding (p. 264), it remains unclear

how federal planning would have avoided the local rivalries and fierce

competition that shaped the polices of state and local governments.

John Majewski is the author of A House Dividing: Economic Development in

Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War (Cambridge University

Press, 2000).

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century